The Tyranny of Distance by Geoffrey Blainey is a fascinating read. As the author describes in the introduction, the book started out life as a description of the transportation system of Australia, and gathered a bit more extra-transportational history as it took shape. As I read the book, the underpinnings of this focus on transportation are clearly evident, and it is these same underpinnings that actually provide a common theme throughout the history. Interesting too is the alternative look at some of the prevailing interpretations of history at the time the book was published, in 1966. I’m also enjoying its many references and comparisons to the United States.
There are a number of interesting tidbits in the book, and I’d like to share one with you. And it’s another point where Australia’s history crosses America’s. Americans were the first to invent a faster ocean going ship, referred to as a clipper ship. These ships were making record times from Liverpool to Melbourne, or more accurately, Port Phillip Heads. These clipper ships had captains that were like rock stars in their time, with their exploits being repeated far and wide. From page 119:
A legend arose that captains of clippers had such a craving for speed that when their ships were running before a high wind with an abnormally large spread of canvas they had to padlock the sails; otherwise the mates or sailors, terrified that the ships might founder, would have been tempted to take in sail and lessen the risk and thereby the speed. If ‘padlocking the halyards’ was acutally practised, then a change of wind in the night could have dismasted the ship while the captain was fumbling for the key. There is no evidence that padlocks were carried but the existence of the myth reflects the part played by reckless, driving captains in the heyday of clippers.
Speeds achieved by American clippers in the 1850’s, speeds probably never again acheived by sailing ships, came from the design of the clippers, the kind of cargoes they carried, their bold captains and big crews, the new short lived Great Circle route, the charts of Matthew Fontaine Maury, and above all the unusal economic incentive for speedy passages.